The mammoth bus rumbles down a chaotic Bangkok street, stopping every two blocks for passengers. As it halts in front of a large shopping center, a bewildered-looking male tourist begins to step aboard. The conductor immediately blocks his path.
"No, no, this one's not for you. No men allowed," the conductor scolds.
Launched last month, Bangkok's new "Lady Buses," which are marked with large pink signs and carry only women, have proven popular with female commuters.
But the Lady Buses have also sparked furious debate among women's rights activists about whether Thai women - disparaged in an ancient Thai proverb as "the hindquarters of the elephant" - are really gaining equality in a historically chauvinistic society.
After discovering that pickpockets were disproportionately targeting women on public transport, the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) on May 30 began operating the Lady Buses, which its director told local reporters "would free women from sexual harassment and pickpocketing on buses." Since their launch, most Lady Buses have been standing-room only, according to the BMTA's director.
Anecdotal evidence appears to back that claim.
Several Thai feminists have welcomed the buses, saying that they show the BMTA's concern for women and demonstrate that females are being recognized as equals in Thai society.
The Lady Buses are a positive development, since they show people "are realizing that women are important members of society ... and are thinking about women's needs and requirements," says Supatra Masdit, who led the Thai delegation to last month's United Nations conference on women in New York.
According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNDFW), about 68 percent of Thai women are in the workforce, one of the highest figures in Asia.
A number of nongovernmental organizations devoted to women's rights have sprung up in Bangkok since Thailand implemented its 1997 "People's Constitution," a document that accorded greater freedom to civil society.
And if opinion polls hold true, Bangkok could have its first female governor - the most important state post - after next month's election.
But some activists claim that the Lady Buses are merely cosmetic changes, obscuring the reality that Thailand remains one of the more chauvinistic societies in the region.
"The Lady Buses are hardly a step forward. They appear to address harassment, but separating women is not the answer. The Lady Buses do not address the underlying issue: Why are men in Thailand so free to harass women?" observes Lorraine Corner, Southeast Asia director of the UNDFW. "There remain huge problems in Thai gender relations, but the government papers over them, by separating women onto different buses, for example. And this separation just contributes to the stereotype of Thai women as weak, weaker than other Southeast Asian women, as unable to help themselves."
Though greater safeguards for women were built into the 1997 Constitution, Thai women actually face an increasing risk of assault, as most Thais still view battered women as deserving of their fate, says Siriporn Skrobanek of the Foundation for Women. Thais have yet to see women as equals who do not ask to be punished, she adds.
While nearly 70 percent of Thai women work, few have risen to senior positions in Thai business. Though Bangkok's next governor may be a woman, females make up only 6 percent of Thailand's members of Parliament, one of the lowest rates in East Asia.
Activists also argue that women's rights are only being discussed in the capital. "Outside Bangkok, in the provinces, the situation is much different.... Conversations about equality and progress toward women's rights move slower," Ms. Supatra said recently.
While some bus drivers in rural Thailand are women, men pilot most of the Lady Buses. "These Lady Buses are supposed to be a step up for women, but the BMTA says it can't find any qualified women drivers.... So are these buses, driven by men, really creating a more positive image of women?" a commuter on the Lady Bus asks.
- Joshua Kurlantzick
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society